The Magazine

Who Let the Dogs Out?

Congressional Cemetery's four-legged groundskeepers.

Jun 13, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 37 • By MARK STRICHERZ
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WHEN HOLLY BURKHALTER IS NOT working, she often unwinds by taking her dog over to Congressional Cemetery in southeast Washington, D.C., and letting the German shepherd roam around the historic graveyard. Burkhalter is the chief lobbyist for Physicians for Human Rights and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Her job demands long hours and, like many busy Capitol Hill professionals, she is happy to have found a place where her $1,000 purebred can romp off the leash. On a lovely Sunday afternoon recently, the 51-year-old had brought along a copy of the New York Times to read and a little red rubber ball for young Fala to play fetch with. "Oh, we just love the cemetery," she said, as the dog brushed its chocolate coat against her.

Burkhalter was kneeling on a grassy incline beside some tombstones, about 50 yards away from where the great composer and conductor John Philip Sousa and Civil War photographer Matthew Brady are interred. Like many of the dog-owners there, she understands people might have qualms about dogs cavorting among the dignitaries' headstones. Unlike many of them, Burkhalter, a sweet woman and practicing Roman Catholic, has paid attention to her surroundings and learned the stories of some of the people buried there: "I like the gravestones of the moms best, the ones who died in childbirth. I feel bad for them and their babies."

Burkhalter tossed the red ball across a one-lane road. As if one with the toy, the dog raced behind in pursuit. About 15 yards in front of her, the ball bounced on some grass and then caromed off a three-foot high gray headstone, under which Henry M. and Elizabeth Steinert are buried. "Aww, geez," Burkhalter said, cringing at the sight. Fala showed no remorse at all.

Congressional Cemetery "is not a dog park; it's a cemetery," Burkhalter allows. In theory, she is correct. The 32-acre parcel, located on the edge of Capitol Hill, is the resting place for an estimated 60,000 people. Among the list of notables buried there are J. Edgar Hoover, Elbridge Gerry (of gerrymander fame), several hundred congressmen, and an array of Civil War generals and Revolutionary-era leaders. There are also cenotaphs at the site in honor of John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Hale Boggs, and Tip O'Neill. Over Memorial Day weekend, the graveyard was peppered with roughly 1,800 U.S. flags.

In practice, however, the site has gone to the dogs. Christ Church, the Episcopal church that owns the grounds, collects an annual fee from dog owners that it uses for upkeep--a program that's proved very popular. On the weekends especially, 10 to 15 dogs at any one time can typically be found walking with their owners or dashing around the tombstones and mausoleums. When nature calls, the owners don't always clean up after them. "Well, you're supposed to," says 50-year-old Tim Sadler, who then leans his head toward me and away from the four dogs he brought today. "But it's hard to tame the dogs."

Sometimes, though, the people are the ones in need of taming. Natalie Yoder volunteers that some dog-owners deliberately seek out the gravesite of the former number one G-man. "Hoover's buried here. Some people let their dog pee on it," says Yoder, 29, in a voice that makes it unclear as to where her sympathies lie. (Her own Boxer pup, Ollie, is unable to choose sides because she is a female and a four-foot high, black, wrought-iron fence surrounds Hoover's grave.)

In looking around Congressional Cemetery, it's hard not to commit amateur sociology on the dog-owners. They cruise by in their Range Rovers, Volvo 240 DL's, and Subaru station wagons. On their windows are decals from Oberlin College and bumper stickers that read "Like Father, Like Son. One Term." They wear T-shirts for the musical Rent. They seem unimpressed by the great civic and military figures like Clay, Sousa, and Joseph G. Totten who are honored here.

But in fairness to the bobos, while they have allowed the graveyard to go to the dogs, they have prevented it from going to hell. Founded in 1807, Congressional Cemetery was in rotten shape as recently as the early 1980s. Vandals had wreaked havoc with the property, drug dealers sold their wares, and homeless people slept there.

"You looked at all the derelicts at the place, the unkempt trees and branches, and it was clear no one was going there," says Linda Harper, the chairman of the board for the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, a group formed by local citizens in the late '70s.

By 1997 the association had succeeded in convincing the National Trust for Historic Preservation to put the cemetery on its list of 11 most endangered historic places. The designation prompted Congress in 1999 to appropriate $1 million to rehabilitate the cemetery.

Today Congressional Cemetery is in far better physical and financial shape. The dog owners have been instrumental in reclaiming the property and paying for its upkeep. About 250 people pay $125 a year plus $40 per canine for the privilege of walking their dog off the leash. Local Boy Scout troops and Marines pitch in with projects, as do the dog owners. Parts of the site are gorgeous. There are rolling hills and slight valleys, crabapple trees and pink carnation petals. In the middle of the graveyard is a small stone-covered chapel for religious services. Even the salmon-colored adjoining buildings for the D.C. jail look good.

At the same time, Congressional Cemetery does not begin to live up to the great democratic and civic standards once taken for granted at such sites. (Think of Lincoln at Gettysburg: "From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.") It's not just the presence of the dogs. It's the lack of even cursory information about the renowned Americans buried there. The cemetery has no markers or signs explaining the accomplishments of the many historical figures buried there. No wonder that many of the dog-walkers can name only Hoover among those interred there.

Nor is this likely to improve. The directors of the Congressional Cemetery--representatives of the church, of the office of the architect of the U.S. Capitol, and of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, among others--emphasize the ecological and environmental potential of the site. "We have a string of efforts to get a more diverse constituency and make it part of a green space with parkland and a riverfront view, to make it part of the Anacostia [Waterfront Initiative]," said Patrick Lally, the chief lobbyist for the National Trust and its liaison to the cemetery. D.C. Mayor Anthony "Williams's vision is to have a network of green space that begins at the National Arboretum . . . and the cemetery will be part of it."

Linda Harper is not wedded to the idea of having dogs run around a burial ground. "Does it bring its own set of problems? Absolutely," she said, adding that down the line the organization might "do something different" with the dog-walkers. But Harper does not see the presence of the canines as a major problem; far more damaging to the gravestones, she says, is acid rain.

She and others say the main problem facing Congressional Cemetery is financial, but running the place is relatively cheap. According to Harper, its annual operating budget is about $280,000. Congress, which has bought hundreds of gravesites there over the last two centuries, could easily do more. No one on the Hill, however, has talked seriously about doing such a thing.

In this, Congress is the perfect cultural and spiritual mirror of the people. Not so long ago, our professional classes aspired toward civic greatness and revered their illustrious predecessors. They did so in many ways--one of them was founding institutions like Congressional Cemetery. They did not do so by letting their dogs run around the graves of their heroes.

Mark Stricherz, a writer living in Washington, D.C., is working on a book about how secular, educated elites transformed the Democratic party.